First Steps Processing the Henry Pitney Van Dusen Papers: An Odd Sort of Activist

Rebecca Lossin was a summer intern who began processing the Van Dusen Papers in the Burke’s archives. Below are some of her thoughts processing the first several series in the voluminous Van Dusen Collection. The project will be completed in the 2016-2017 academic year with the support of the Columbia University Libraries Primary Source Internship. Read on and stay tuned for more on Pit’s life and legacy in the coming months!

The late 1960s found Henry Pitney Van Dusen in a flurry of letter writing activity. At this time the Vietnam War was at its height; the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 sent ripples through otherwise placid religious communities at home and abroad; students across the United States were making demands of their governments and universities; and women sought equal places in institutions of higher education. The modernization theory that sat so comfortably with a traditional missionary mandate throughout the 1950s and early 1960s was on its way out and new set of political relationships and expectations were on the horizon.

Van Dusen served as the President of Union Theological Seminary from 1945 to 1963 after which he continued to be active in the academic world, weighing in on issues at UTS, organizing semi-annual symposia on theological themes and serving on the Board of Trustees of Princeton University. “Pit,” as he was affectionately called by friends and colleagues, was always active in several organizations at once. He was a prolific and respected theologian and, if his notes from the time he spent teaching Systematic Theology are any indication, extremely well-versed in subjects as various as Augustine of Hippo and William James.

The papers of Henry Pitney Van Dusen are a rich and informative collection that should appeal to scholars of many stripes and the information contained in these surprisingly well-organized record boxes could paint numerous and varied pictures of this active and well-documented man. It seems to me, however, that “Pit” was at his most active and most interesting when theological questions intersected with political events.  While he was clearly capable of giving learned lectures on “Homiletics and the Pauline Letters” or  “The Evangelical Revival” the volume of correspondence and other writing that Van Dusen produced in relation to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Vietnam, and the institution of apartheid in South Africa, indicates a particular passion for political events.

Van Dusen does not settle easily into current popular categories of Left and Right. His political positions would seem utterly contradictory within the context of today’s party platforms (indeed, we see something similar in the current Pope). He was, for example, deeply suspicious of coeducation, preferring that Princeton take its cues from the Harvard-Radcliffe model, where, according to his letters, a Mrs. Bunting did a fine job of reminding young ladies of their future roles as wives and mothers.

He supported the war in Vietnam and was mortified by the publicity that a few of his fellow trustees obtained by publicly declaring their anti-war positions. While, in the end, The Princeton Board of Trustees chose not to address this issue in any official capacity, Van Dusen took it upon himself to distribute surveys in order to discern what a majority of the members’ positions actually were. His correspondence indicates that he wanted to correct the record publicly so that it was not assumed that Princeton was anti-war,  but was discouraged from doing so by other trustees.

Politically nuanced, Van Dusen was horrified by the institution of apartheid and devoted his inexhaustible energy to encouraging Princeton’s board to take an official position against the practice of apartheid and to divest from companies that directly or indirectly supported the government of South Africa or benefited from their practices.

He took what seems, from his records at least, to be an unpopular and arguably pro-Arab position during and following the Six Day War or the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. Files dated as early as 1940 indicate that he is not a supporter of political Zionism, but the voluminous correspondence that resulted from the 1967 war shows a man who took a principled stance that was at odds with a majority of his colleagues. He received letters that ranged from reasoned and even-handed disagreement to pure vitriol. One correspondent claimed that “the pathological unconscious of Christendom has at last come to the surface in this man.” There are indications in later letters that he suffered along with his family from his very public opinions regarding this matter and became more cautious about sharing his views later in that year.

And there is, of course, his principled stance on euthanasia, which he and his wife put into practice late in their life by committing suicide together.

What I find most compelling about Henry Pitney “Pit” Van Dusen is not any of his political positions alone or in combination, but the overwhelming evidence of a man whose faith and religious beliefs oriented him solidly and unapologetically in the face of widespread and sometimes vitriolic opposition.  The only thing lacking in these papers is any indication that Van Dusen could be swayed by popular opinions or a group consensus. Even, it turns out, when this consensus was doctrinal–he was very nearly denied ordination because he did not believe in the Virgin Birth.


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